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Frequently Asked Questions

Research ethics

1. How long does it take to hear back about a research ethics submission? 

It normally takes about 4 weeks to receive a response from the Research Ethics Board (REB). In most cases, your first response to a new research ethics application will be a review letter in which the REB requests further information or makes recommendations for changes.

When you respond to this initial review letter, it can take another 4 weeks to provide another REB review of your submission.  You should plan at least 8 weeks from submission to approval, and this estimate is highly variable depending on the nature of the project, the quality of the initial ethics submission and the timeliness of communication between the researcher and the REB.

After you receive REB approval, you may find that you would like to make changes to your project. If this is the case, you will need to submit an amendment request [DOC] to the board. Again, you should plan for about 4 weeks to have your amendment request assessed and the review to be communicated with you.

If your research extends 12 months or more beyond the initial REB approval date, you will need to submit an annual report [DOC - 69 KB] for continuing review. This should be submitted at least 21 days prior to the current approval’s expiry date (which will be found on your approval letter).

Please note that there are no research ethics reviews in August.

2. Is there anything the researcher can do to speed up the REB review process?

Some parts of the review process will be beyond your control. There are an increasing number of submissions and each must be reviewed by the research ethics staff, board chair and by volunteer board members who give it careful ethical review and prepare written feedback for you. This takes time.

The best way you can contribute to a speedier review process is to submit a carefully prepared application that highlights the ethical considerations relevant to your study. You should read the application and submission instructions carefully and provide the requested information.

It is highly recommended that you complete the online Course on Research Ethics. Research Ethics has prepared Top 10 Tips [PDF - 35 kB], things you can do to improve your REB application, as well as a Researcher Checklist [PDF - 448 kB]. By following the advice in these documents, you can avoid common errors that could delay your REB approval.

3. I have REB approval through another institution. Do I need to get Dalhousie REB approval too?

In most cases, yes. If you are affiliated with Dalhousie University, you will require Dalhousie University REB approval (as per TCPS Chapter 8) even if the research has been approved by another TCPS-compliant institution.

If the project for which you require Dalhousie University REB approval has already been reviewed and approved by another TCPS-compliant institution, rather than submit a new REB application on Dalhousie forms, Research Ethics tries to make the process of multi-jurisdictional review easier for researchers by accepting submissions as follows:

  1. The first page of the Dalhousie research ethics application form (section 1, with the administrative information complete)
  2. The full application to the other TCPS-compliant institution
  3. The review material from the other institution’s REB
  4. The approval letter from the other institution’s REB

This process is appropriate only when the project described to another REB is identical to the project as it would be described to Dalhousie University.  If the project that will completed under the auspices or jurisdiction of Dalhousie differs, a Dalhousie REB submission (on Dalhousie forms) should be made.

When making a submission using another institution’s REB forms, it is the researcher’s responsibility to ensure that all the components of the Dalhousie research ethics application are addressed in the other research ethics documentation. If any components are missing, the researcher should address these to the board through a cover letter, for example. Researchers are advised to comment on whether or not any provincial privacy legislation is relevant to the research project, such as the Personal Information International Disclosure Protection Act or the Personal Health Information Act.

Dalhousie University has formal agreements with a number of hospitals. If your research has been approved by one of their research ethics boards, you do not additionally require REB approval at Dalhousie:

  • Nova Scotia Health Authority
  • Horizon Health (NB)
  • IWK Health Centre

Please note that all documents for multi-jurisdictional review must be submitted in a single electronic file (MS Word or PDF format) in accordance with our submission instructions for faculty, staff and graduate student research.

4. Does program evaluation and quality improvement/assurance require research ethics review?

Research requires REB review, but program evaluation, quality assurance and quality improvement activity is exempt from REB review (as per TCPS 2.5). The Panel on Research Ethics offers more interpretation of this question on its website (Scope – Questions 2 and 7).

It is often difficult to determine what activities qualify for an exemption from research ethics review. The Dalhousie Research Ethics boards have developed Guidelines for Differentiating Among Research, Program Evaluation and Quality Improvement [PDF - 45 kB].  The guidelines intended to guide researchers and evaluators (including students) as they determine whether their proposed activity constitutes research, program evaluation (PE), or quality improvement (QI), and therefore whether it requires research ethics review or is exempt.

Please note that intent to publish does not in itself determine whether the activity is research (therefore requiring REB review). 

5. Do I need to use a written consent form that that I ask participants to sign?

No. There is a whole chapter devoted to the consent process in the TCPS (Chapter 3). You must ensure that consent is documented (TCPS 3.12), but that documentation does not need to be a written consent form, although this format is common and appropriate in many instances.

Researchers should consider the most appropriate means of ensuring potential participants receive all the information necessary to make an informed decision about whether or not to participate in research (TCPS 3.2 details the required elements of informed consent) as well as the most appropriate way to document a participant’s consent, and describe this fully in the research ethics submission.

Sample constent forms are available in the Resources section.


6. I would like to use data from a colleague (or database). I will receive the data in a de-identified format (all identifiable information will be removed). Do I need to get REB approval?

Yes. REB review is not required for research that relies exclusively on secondary use of anonymous information (TCPS 2.4). Anonymous information is information that never had identifiers associated with it (TCPS p. 59). Although you may be receiving the information in an “anonymous” format, the fact that the data was once identifiable means that the research doesn’t qualify for an exemption from REB review according to the TCPS.

7. How long should I keep my data?

Dalhousie University does not have a policy on the retention of data. The Panel on Research Ethics offers more interpretation of this question on its website (Question 5). It is common to keep data for at least five years (this was past Dalhousie University policy, which is no longer in effect), but there is no requirement to do so. 

There is also no requirement to destroy data after a set period of time. The TCPS states that “researchers shall provide details to the REB regarding their proposed measures for safeguarding information, for the full life cycle of information: its collection, use, dissemination, retention and/or disposal” (article 5.3). You may choose to retain research data longer term; if so, please describe the rationale, if and how the data will be anonymized or destroyed, and how appropriate security safeguards will be in place for the full life cycle of information” (5.3 (e)).

8. I am a graduate student.  Should I submit my research ethics application before or after my thesis proposal has been approved by my supervisory committee?

After. You must have your supervisory committee approval first.  Your committee may offer recommendations that will require changes to your research project.  This is the project you should present to the Research Ethics Board for ethical review.

9. I want to conduct an online survey as part of my research. What tool should I use?

The REB recommends the use of Opinio or REDCap for web-based survey research. Opinio is a Dal hosted and supported tool researchers can use to collect survey information online. The survey data from Opino is stored on Dalhousie servers and therefore helps researchers adhere to various pieces of privacy legislation, and the Dalhousie Policy for the Protection of Personal Information from Access Outside Canada.

REDcap is a secure web application for building and managing online surveys and databases. Like Opinio, the data is stored on Dalhousie servers and similarly upholds the same privacy legislation and Dalhousie Policies mentioned above. Some researchers will find REDCap to be better suited to more complex research designs. At this time, REDCcap is available to Dalhousie Faculty only.

If researchers would like to use a different survey tool, they must be mindful of the requirements to protect personally identifiable information (PII) of participants (or information, when combined with other information that could become personally identifiable). Not all surveys collect PII, but those that do must demonstrate to the REB that:

  • Any PII is stored on Canadian servers. This is required to comply with the Personal Information International Disclosure Protection Act, and the Dalhousie Policy for the Protection of Personal Information from Access Outside Canada.
  • If the PII is not to be stored on Canadian servers, then the risks to participants of having their data stored outside of Canada (and potentially subject to access by foreign governments), must be clearly presented in the consent documents.